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What You Need to Know If You Mentor Youth or Manage Interns

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Bring your authentic self.

This hard-earned advice I share with our college and high school interns is something I did not fully appreciate until I was in my late 20s and well into my career. Understanding and embracing this philosophy sooner in my life would have made my early work experiences so much richer and more fulfilling.

Breaking the Barrier

If you influence the work of interns, here’s what I want you to understand: For many, this is the first exposure to the inner-working of a company. Our norms are new for them.

That newness can paralyze. Students can’t contribute fully if they are uncomfortable or afraid.

As a mentor and coach, my first connection with interns often relates to what we share. Sometimes that common thread is being a minority, as was the case with high school intern Javion (you can see his story here).

A student knows that they are different because of their age and lack of experience. When the student is a minority, the difference can feel even bigger.

Fear – of being judged, of the unknown, of making a mistake – can silence creativity and contributions, and that’s the last thing we want. I told Javion, and I tell all of our interns: You have a voice that is uniquely yours. Use it.

And it’s up to us to make sure that voice is heard.

You Are Important

Internships must be a positive experience. There’s no option for anything less.

This is a student’s first experience in a company. For some (like Javion), it’s the first time being a minority in a professional setting.

You can make an indelible impact on someone’s life. You can be the deciding factor if that student wants to pursue a particular career, industry or company.

To create a positive experience, remember:

  1. Students are inexperienced. That’s why they are interning. Do not assume they know the etiquette of professional dress or emails, the structure or expectations of meetings, the path of decision making. They don’t. Teach them.
  2. Prioritize development and appreciate aptitude. Internships are about learning and shaping. Don’t expect the work product to look like something an experienced employee can deliver. It won’t. Guide them.
  3. Life outside of the internship matters. How students show up for work can rely on factors you know nothing about. Pressures at home and school can be monumental. Be realistic in your expectations and open to learning about their life. 

Vulnerability Creates Path for Feedback

In my first job out of college I was part of a leadership development program. I never felt like I belonged. I was a minority struggling in the environment, and it impacted my performance.

I could have spoken out. I could have contributed more in different areas. I could have been bolder. I was not confident or comfortable enough to do it.

In my late 20s a leader said to me: ‘When you hold back, when you don’t give us your full self, you do us and yourself a disservice.’

That moment changed how I showed up. I could share my perspectives and ideas. I could respectively disagree. I could get more involved.

I realized what it meant to bring your authentic self to work.

The more I offer of myself, the more vulnerable I am about my experience and mistakes, the more readily students like Javion can relate to me and to the people sharing their internship experience.

As a mentor, it’s not required that you share similar education, experience, ethnicity or beliefs with your interns. But for people of color, especially in early career, having someone who can relate on these levels can create a shortcut of knowledge and comfort that makes it easier to excel more quickly.

Why This Matters

When you are in a place of understanding and trust, interns start to embrace feedback for what it is – an opportunity (versus criticism). For those delivering feedback, remember:

  • Delivery is everything. These are young people. Your words can derail a career or lift it to another level. You are a builder. Be honest, patient and transparent.   
  • Your influence can last a lifetime. This is a person’s first experience in a corporation and for some, the first time as a minority in this environment. You are making a footprint, an indelible impact, on someone’s life.
  • Take your responsibility seriously. You could be the deciding factor if that student wants to pursue this career, industry or company.

Help your interns be their authentic selves, and to find and use their unique voice.

Brandon Stephens
Brandon Stephens
Manager, Talent and University Relations, Rockwell Automation
Brandon Stephens

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